Chapter 23.02 Title and Purpose

The code opens, appropriately enough, with a purpose statement.

A. The purpose of this Land Use Code is to protect and promote public health, safety and general welfare through a set of regulations and procedures for the use of land which are consistent with and implement the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Procedures are established to increase citizen awareness of land use activities and their impacts and to coordinate necessary review processes. The Land Use Code classifies land within the City into various land use zones and overlay districts in order to regulate uses and structures. The provisions are designed to provide adequate light, air, access, and open space; conserve the natural environment and historic resources; maintain a compatible scale within an area; minimize traffic congestion and enhance the streetscape and pedestrian environment. They seek to achieve an efficient use of the land without major disruption of the natural environment and to direct development to lots with adequate services and amenities.

The remaining parts, B, C, and D, make clear that “other regulations apply, such as but not limited to building and construction codes,” that the code will use lots as its currency when it talks about structures and use, and includes a severability clause making it clear a waiver to one part of the code does not an indicate a waiver to the other parts.

I’m going to pay attention to the purpose section (although I am curious about the evolution of the lot as the denominator of land).

The last revision of the purpose section that I could get online was an amendment from 1995 that also added B, C, and D. That change did this:

which in order to regulate the uses and bulk of buildings and structures

Not a huge change, but important. It makes the code a means to an end in this sentence. The code exists to regulate. And this amendment specifically yanks out the idea that the purpose of the code is about the bulk of buildings. Bulk of buildings is almost a rallying cry of NIMBYs everywhere and especially here in Seattle. I’ve never really understood it. Complaints about bulk beg the question of whether the problem is subjective–like a shaggy dog story–or whether there is some ideal form of “bulkiness” that projects exceed or meet.

And the first sentence is one I like for the same reason I like the last edit: it establishes right away that the land use code is a means to an end not an end in and of itself. There is no doubt that public health, safety and general welfare are laudable goals. But they seem rather distant from what I would suggest land use is for in the 21st century. Do we really think the land use code is going to improve people’s health? That might just the latest and best effort to bolster the original connection between zoning and health.

Do safety and general welfare belong as outcomes for the land use code? They could be. But like health (can zoning changes appreciably or substantially reduce the incidence of diabetes?*) safety and general welfare seem like old fashioned zoning concepts. Safety seems better suited as an outcome of the building code, not the land use code. I could be sold on general welfare. But isn’t that the outcome of the whole code?

I suppose I can live with what the next sentence points to about process. Yes people in the city should be aware of “land use activities and their impacts.” I might strengthen this language a bit. Part of our problem is that most people don’t become engaged with “land use activities” until something is happening on their block. Then their awareness to quickly turns into worry. I think there should be something about people needing to be more active before a MUP board goes up and that more engagement is better than less at the early stages of development. Awareness isn’t enough.

I really don’t like this language: “maintain a compatible scale within an area; minimize traffic congestion.” Arrgh. There is the other head of the three headed NIMBY beast called HEIGHTBULKENSCALE. Of all the red herrings in land use discussions these are the three of the reddest. Height can certainly be measured. But compatible scale? Why worry about this? I have yet to think of why new development must fit the scale of existing development. It can, but it shouldn’t have to.

And strike out the traffic congestion pablum as well. The purpose of the land use code should not involve the reduction of “traffic congestion.” I won’t argue that the purpose section of the land use title should codify a war on cars, but it shouldn’t enshrine the idea that the code is there to fix that problem, if it even is a problem.

So, here is my rewrite of the purpose section for the 21st century:

A. The purpose of this Seattle’s Land Use Code is to protect and promote public health, safety and general welfare through a set of regulations and procedures for the use of land support and welcome new development to the city through regulations, policies, and procedures which are consistent with and implement the City’s Comprehensive Plan. New growth in Seattle is an important source of economic development, cultural diversity, and helps support sustainable practices that reduce negative impacts on our air and water. Procedures are established to increase citizen awareness of land use activities and their impacts and to coordinate necessary review processes.Seattle’s land use code endeavors to always be engaging residents and visitors to the city with the built environment, including them in it’s evolution and change. The Land Use Code classifies land within the City into various land use zones and overlay districts in order to regulates uses and structures and encourages, when possible, the mixing of various uses and structures to promote sustainable development of new housing and work places. The provisions are designed to provide adequate light, air, access, and open space; conserve the natural environment and historic resources ; maintain a compatible scale within an area; minimize traffic congestion and enhance the streetscape and pedestrian environment define and promote livability, health, accessibility to public resources, and safety for everyone. They seek to achieve an efficient use of the land without major disruption of the natural environment and to directpromote developmentand adequate services and amenities.

* I get the idea that walkable neighborhoods can possibly lead to improved health outcomes. The literature is developing on this topic. But shouldn’t the code promote the development of lots in such a way that it creates walkable neighborhoods rather than be promoting health? Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I think the purpose of the land use code should be good land use with “good” including benefits like health, not health itself.

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4 Responses to Chapter 23.02 Title and Purpose

  1. Sara Nikolic says:

    I’m not a fan of your new opening sentence. I think “welcome new development” is too broad. Development in and of itself is not inherently good, even if it is in the city. You go on to explain some of the ways in which development can foster economic development, diversity, sustainability — but I want to see that sooner. I would prefer:
    “The purpose of Seattle’s Land Use Code is to establish regulations, policies and procedures to support new development to the city that will further the goals of the City’s Comprehensive Plan, including economic development, social equity, and environmental sustainability.”

  2. Codillac says:

    Sara,

    First of all, it’s awesome you are commenting.

    I agree. I like your language.

    I was also thinking as I was walking around a bit ago that there is a lot of stuff already here. What do we do with that. Renovation, rehab, and reuse of existing buildings and structures and land are important. How do we capture that?

    • Sara Nikolic says:

      Two suggestions:
      Take out the “new” in “new development.” Not all development happens from scratch, and nor should it.
      Also, could add some more of the comp plan goals to that list, including historic preservation.

  3. Pingback: “You ain’t from around these parts, are you?” | Seattle's Land Use Code

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